Home/Daniel Larison/Arming Ukraine: Still a Terrible Idea

Arming Ukraine: Still a Terrible Idea

Paul Saunders reminds us that arming Ukraine remains a terrible idea:

If the United States arms Ukraine—and announces that the policy is an explicit effort to kill more Russian soldiers fighting in Ukraine—its impact on Russian public opinion is likely to be the opposite of what advocates say they intend. Indeed, it could transform the war there from a popular but essentially optional effort to help separatist forces and civilians in eastern Ukraine into a necessary conflict against a hostile American proxy. At the same time, for most Russians, it will probably confirm their government’s overheated rhetoric about U.S. ambitions in Ukraine and alleged American plans to force Russia to its knees or overthrow its government. Taken together, these shifts might increase Russians’ tolerance of battlefield deaths and injuries rather more rapidly than new U.S. arms will (or can) increase Russian casualties.

Moreover, the idea that more Russian deaths in Ukraine will “expose” Moscow’s role in the fighting is ludicrous. While Vladimir Putin and others may deny that Russian troops are in Ukraine in official meetings and statements, commentators on government-controlled television channels discuss Russia’s assistance to the separatists extensively.

As Saunders says, if the goal of sending arms to Ukraine is to impose higher political costs on the Russian government it is unlikely to succeed and will more likely backfire. The typical response from a very nationalist public to battlefield losses is to react with outrage at the people causing the casualties and to rally behind their own government. Indeed, if the U.S. armed Ukrainian forces to help them kill Russians and Russian-backed separatists, that would make it politically riskier for the Russian leadership to halt or scale back its intervention. It would also create incentives for that leadership to escalate, and as Saunders notes that would be a terrible outcome for Ukraine. Trying to turn the Russian public against the government by providing weapons to kill Russians would be a lousy idea even if the Russian public weren’t squarely behind the government’s policies, but it just so happens that they are.

Saunders says earlier in his article that we know from our own experience that an increase in casualties alone does not determine how much support a foreign war has, but it depends on whether the public understands and agrees with the government’s goals. According to this survey, there is overwhelming support in Russia for how the government has been acting:

Russians Overwhelmingly Support Putin’s Foreign and Domestic Policies

We also know from our own experience that government policy does not immediately change even when the public sours on a foreign war. More often than not, the government’s response is to intensify its war effort in an attempt to “salvage” a failed policy. This is usually accompanied by demands to “stay the course.” Presumably an authoritarian regime would be even less responsive to changes in public opinion than our own, and it would respond more harshly to serious dissent. Even if arming Ukraine and inflicting more casualties had the desired effect on Russian public opinion, that wouldn’t necessarily translate into the desired change in regime behavior anyway. Perhaps instead of looking for ways to try to compel that change in behavior with coercive measures, the U.S. and its allies should be trying to identify what incentives they could offer Moscow to produce a lasting settlement to the conflict. That isn’t likely to satisfy hawks here or in Europe, but it might actually halt the fighting rather than making it worse.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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